Monday, September 21, 2015

The Art of The Scoop -- Remembering Ozzie & Others

What is a scoop? Everything from getting the tiniest fact before a competitor to bringing down a president through months of exhaustive research -- a la Woodward & Bernstein -- has been labeled "scoops."

In these days of Twitter, Vine and other miracles of the interwebs, it's muddled even more. If Reporter A finds out that Joe Quarterback has stubbed his toe 20 seconds before Reporter B does, is it a "scoop"? (Sure. Why not? It's at least a mini-scoop.)

Many stories labeled as scoops developed from interviews -- the subject tells something newsworthy to the reporter, who becomes the first to chronicle it. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 100% of the scoops during my newspaper days were of this variety.

I'll discuss this a little more in a bit, but first, here's the impetus for me thinking about this right now:

It's is the 10-year anniversary of what was probably my final "scoop" as a journalist.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen believed he was being mistreated by fans and was so distraught he told me he would seriously consider quitting ... but only if his team went on to win the World Series.

For those who might not remember, here is the column I wrote for the Copley Newspapers and its news service ...


September 22, 2005

Feeling so stressed out that he regularly vomits and feeling unappreciated by Chicago's boo-first fans, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen says he might quit after the season if his team wins the World Series.

"I've got (championship) rings already and I'm proud of them, but if I win here, if I help the White Sox do this, it will give me a chance to walk away if I want to," an emotional Guillen told me before Wednesday night's 8-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians.

"I will think about it. I will think about it twice. The way I'm thinking right now, I will tell (general manager) Kenny Williams to get another manager and I'll get the (bleep) out of here. I'll make more money signing autographs instead of dealing with this (bleep)."

I have heard Ozzie say some wild things during his two seasons as Sox skipper, but this one floored me.

Here's a 41-year-old, second-year manager who has guided a modestly talented team to the American League's best record, a guy who in just a few weeks could be the first Chicago manager in 88 years to spray championship champagne, a former White Sox All-Star who gets misty-eyed when discussing his love of the organization ... and he is seriously contemplating his grand exit.

I wanted to make sure I heard him correctly, so I asked him repeatedly to clarify his comments. And he kept saying the same things, often raising his voice to accentuate certain points.

"I'm not kidding, not at all," Guillen said. "I want the fans to be able to say, 'Hey, we finally did it!' I want to make them proud. I want to win the World Series, and then maybe i'm gone. I'll even help Kenny look for someone else.

"I don't give a (bleep) about the money; I've got all I need. The thing is, I'm stressed every day.

"Do I have the best job in the world? Yes, because I'm managing the team I love. I'm managing my team. But every time we lose, I feel sick. I (vomit) sometimes. I get mad. I throw things in my office. It makes me crazy.

"I went to the World Series as a player (with Atlanta) and won one as a coach (with Florida). If I can do it as the manager here, I can say: 'Everything I want to do in baseball, I did it.' Then I'll make my decision."

Frankly, I doubt Guillen will have to worry about winning the World Series.

Although Wednesday's loss reduced their one-time 15-game AL Central lead over Cleveland to 21/2 games, I still think the Sox will make the playoffs (perhaps only as a wild-card team). I simply don't believe they have enough firepower or pitching to advance beyond the first round.

The Indians are so much more talented it's ridiculous. Travis Hafner alone is as good as any three White Sox. Nevertheless, with the division lead dwindling, many fans are taking out their frustrations on Guillen.

A half-hour after telling dozens of reporters that he didn't mind being booed at U.S.Cellular Field - even joking about "the 30,000 managers helping me out" - Guillen showed his vulnerable side during our long conversation.

"It makes me sad when they boo me," he said. "Sometimes I think they don't appreciate me. They should, because I played my (bleep) off for them and now I'm managing my (bleep) off for them.

"You know how many managers are dying for 91 wins right now? And we have that and they don't appreciate that? It makes me wonder what happens if I only have 71 wins, how are they gonna treat me? I mean, they treat me like (bleep) when I'm winning 91.

"My kids are here at the ballpark and they ask me later why I'm getting booed. I say it's part of my job, but deep down inside, it hurts. If I was doing a (bleep) job, sure, go ahead and boo me, but I think I'm doing pretty good."

So do I. With his boundless energy, confident personality, brutal honesty, zany (and often profane) sense of humor and aggressive style, Guillen convinced a completely retooled team - one many preseason prognosticators predicted would finish in fourth place - to believe it could accomplish anything.

The White Sox have blown most of their 15-game lead largely because the starting pitchers have slumped these last seven weeks. Just when it seemed the Sox were ready to choke completely, Guillen led them to a series victory in Minnesota.

Then came the first two games of the Cleveland series, in which the Indians kept taking leads and Ozzie's resilient Sox kept battling back. If the White Sox do qualify for postseason play, credit Tuesday's stirring comeback. Guillen's forceful, can-do attitude played a huge role in that triumph - and in the team's other 32 one-run victories.

Though it's easy to quibble with in-game decisions, the true measure of any manager is his ability to steer his ship through both smooth and choppy waters. That's why he's often called a "skipper."

Ozzie Guillen has been a superb skipper. If White Sox fans don't realize that, they don't deserve him.


A few interesting things (hey, at least I think they're interesting) about this column on its anniversary:

++ The genesis of it was this: Guillen was talking to a couple dozen reporters before a game, as managers routinely do. Unlike most managers, Ozzie had absolutely no filter and would say anything anytime. This particular time, he was grousing about the fans, and he felt he was being treated unfairly. After about a 2-minute discussion, the subject changed to something else. (Probably about Jay Mariotti being a jerk.) But as I stood there, I couldn't help but think that Ozzie really was deeply hurt by fans booing him, and I decided that if I had an opportunity to follow up with him about it, I would.

++ On some occasions in the past, my instincts had been wrong. Either the subject didn't feel like discussing a situation in greater detail or there simply was nothing there. This time, though, I happened to be right. About a half-hour after his session with reporters, I pulled Ozzie aside near the back of the batting cage and asked him a question. He went on a 3-minute, stream-of-consciousness rant that would form the basis of my column. When he said he was so upset about the perceived mistreatment that he "pukes sometimes," I knew I had something worth writing. I asked a couple of follow-up questions and he kept going, his voice rising. Friends up in the press box could see Ozzie making exaggerated hand gestures as he talked. Because Ozzie sometimes spoke in broken English and because he often was a jokester, I asked him several times if he was serious; I didn't want to report something only to be told later I hadn't gotten the joke or I hadn't understood. He assured me he was serious and he continued to talk.

++ The result was the column. By the next morning, it was the "water-cooler topic" in Chicago sports. I was asked to go on several radio shows to discuss it. Many newspapers that had nothing to do with my employer mentioned it, as did ESPN. That afternoon, before the White Sox's next game, Guillen again met with the media. My column was the main topic of conversation.

++ To his credit, Guillen never claimed he was misquoted, never tried to back away from what he said and never claimed to have been taken out of context. (The "out-of-context" lie has become the preferred lie of public officials everywhere, as they know they can't say they were misquoted because reporters all use recording devices now.) I liked Ozzie well before this interview, but this situation helped cement his status as one of my favorite people I have covered.

++ A couple of my Chicago sports journalism colleagues tried to say it wasn't a story at all because Guillen had jokingly made similar claims in the past. I don't blame those folks for being dismissive or trying to come up with an excuse, because it's never fun to get "scooped." My fellow columnists at the Tribune, the Southtown and other publications stuck up for me, which was nice.

++ In the ensuing weeks, everybody from USA Today to the Christian Science Monitor made references to Ozzie's remarks to me. In a book he wrote about the 2005 White Sox, Tribune reporter Mark Gonzalez devoted a few pages to it. For a reporter, having written something that kept people talking for weeks or even months definitely was satisfying.

++ I was dead wrong about one thing in that column: my assessments that the Indians were "so much more talented it's ridiculous" and that Guillen wouldn't have to "worry about winning the World Series." The White Sox caught fire again just in time -- in great part because of Ozzie's motivational skills and his handling of the pitching staff -- and Ozzie became the toast of the town.

++ I never really thought Ozzie would quit, and not just because I doubted they'd win the Series. I was quite sure he was just reacting -- some would say over-reacting -- to a perceived slight. Ozzie often was guilty of being "very human," the classic example of the cliche, "he wears his emotions on his sleeve." He often got in trouble because of his knee-jerk emotional reactions.

++ I'm pretty sure most intelligent observers agreed with me that there was little to no chance of Ozzie quitting. But that wasn't really the point. The column opened a window into the soul of a major sports figure in Chicago history. I mean, the man was so distraught about the fans booing him that he regularly puked! It was news.


Three more favorite scoops:

1. As a 23-year-old reporter for AP in Madison, I interviewed Badgers forward Cory Blackwell, the Big Ten's leading scorer and rebounder that season. During the course of a long interview, he told me he was planning to leave after his junior season to go pro.

That was news enough because it wasn't all that common in 1984 for players to leave early for the NBA, especially if they weren't shoo-in superstars. Even more telling was the way he said it: He played in Chicago summer leagues against the likes of Isiah Thomas and Doc Rivers, and he schooled them! During the course of the interview, he also ripped Badgers coach Steve Yoder.

It ended up being a great read. And of course, the next day, Blackwell denied it all, said he was misquoted, yada yada yada.

After he spoke to the other reporters, pointing at me and calling me a liar, I confronted him at the end of the court, about 60 feet away from where the other reporters were gathered. It must have been a hilarious scene, as we weren't exactly talking quietly and our hands were moving in exaggerated gestures. 

The next day, the Wisconsin State Journal took Blackwell's "side." The Milwaukee papers also were skeptical of my article.

I ended up doubling down -- getting a source to confirm Blackwell's intentions. And, naturally, he DID go pro. He was Seattle's second-round draft pick but played in only 60 NBA games. Maybe he dominated Isiah Thomas in the summer leagues -- riiiight! -- but he wasn't good enough when the games actually mattered.

2. During my time as AP's sports guy in Minneapolis, I used to joke with my newspaper friends that they should be fired immediately if I ever got a "scoop." After all, their entire job was to closely follow the ins and outs of their teams, while I had to cover four pro sports, a major university and even some preps.

But of course, sometimes scoops "just happen." That was the case in 1991 when, near the end of a difficult season, I interviewed Timberwolves coach Bill Musselman after practice. Even though the T-Wolves actually had exceeded expectations their first two years in the league, Musselman was being criticized by some for not giving young players more court time. Mostly, he was accused of stunting the development of 1990 top draft pick Gerald Glass; the ultra-intense Mussleman wanted Glass to actually earn playing time.

Not long into the interview, Musselman started expressing the belief that even management was against him. Just as I knew I had a great column about Ozzie when he mentioned puking, I knew I had something with Musselman when he said Timberwolves president Bob Stein "hates me."

There were denials all around. Musselman, who had always been a straight shooter with me, disappointed me by claiming he had been taken out of context. Stein denied there was a rift. Everybody tried to put on a happy face.

Of course, a month later, Musselman was fired.

And Gerald Glass? He was a soft player who refused to play defense and was soon out of the league -- Musselman had been right about him.

3. A year after Michael Jordan came out of retirement the second time (to play for the Wizards), I had heard from some "friends of friends" that he never really wanted to retire after the 1998 season but felt he had to when Jerrys Krause and Reinsdorf insisted upon pushing out Phil Jackson and bringing in college coach (and Krause buddy) Tim Floyd.

So I began asking around and several sources confirmed that, despite saying he was gone if Jackson left, Jordan would have stayed had the Bulls promoted assistant coach John Paxson or maybe even hired Bill Cartwright, another trusted former teammate. Then, on Dec. 31, 2002, I had a great conversation with then Trail Blazer Scottie Pippen, who said on the record: "I know Michael would have played for Pax."

With that, I knew I had a decent column, but it really came together two days later when a source extremely close to Jordan told me: "Michael would have loved playing for Pax. John Paxson would have been the perfect solution."

It was great to have the truth come out: Reinsdorf let Krause convince him he could rebuild the team quickly by dumping all the big-money players who were starting to get up there in age -- even Jordan. The Bulls would draft early (hello, Eddy Curry and Marcus Fizer), would sign big-name free agents (Tim Duncan! Grant Hill! Tracy McGrady!), and Floyd would guide the Bulls back to prominence.

As Rick Perry would say: Oops.

The Bulls stunk for years and, soon enough, Floyd and Krause were unemployed. Ironically, the man Reinsdorf chose to replace Krause was Paxson.


A couple of final thoughts about scoops ...

In 2005, when the Ozzie situation happened, the Internet was becoming a powerful tool -- but Twitter did not yet exist and Facebook, mostly a college curiosity, was in its infancy. When something happened on Sept. 22, it wasn't until it appeared in the newspaper on Sept. 23 that its impact was really felt -- which had been the case for more than a century.

Within a year or two, that was no longer true. Scoops happen fast and furiously, often several in a day. Now, there are what I call SCOOPS and mini-scoops.

It's hard for me to get excited about a mini-scoop -- a relatively minor story that's broken at 10:33 a.m. only to be matched by another outlet at 10:35 a.m.

I'm more impressed than ever by actual SCOOPS, though. There is so much competition and so much immediacy. Also, public figures are so guarded. So to actually "work it" and have an interesting and/or important story come to fruition ... I really respect that.


Lastly ...

I hope people don't read this as bragging. The mere fact that I can remember so few scoops so clearly is evidence that I wasn't exactly a "scoop machine." I fully admit that I fell into at least a couple of them.

Having said that, it definitely was a rush when an instinct played out and resulted in a legitimate story.

Real scoops are like no-hitters. If they happened all the time, they wouldn't be special.

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